The Art of Storytelling in PR

As a PR professional, you probably don’t consider yourself a storyteller.

Yet, what do you do every day?

You look for stories. You pitch stories to journalists. You track stories in the news, in magazines, on websites. You work with media practitioners to develop stories.

“Marketing is storytelling.” – Seth Godin

You’ve been doing brand storytelling and probably didn’t even know it.

Why do stories work?

It turns out, using storytelling in PR and marketing has a scientific basis. Storytelling is an effective way to communicate. And by “effective” I mean it brings about change in our audiences.

Leo Widrich of Buffer summarized the research on how storytelling affects our brains. First of all, hearing a story activates more areas of our brain than consuming purely factual content. When listening to a story, areas of our brain light up, as if we were experiencing the story ourselves!

Another wonderful thing that happens in storytelling is what’s called “neural coupling.” Stay with me here, this is actually quite simple. All this means is that the brain of the audience synchronizes with the storyteller’s brain. As specific parts of the storyteller’s brain light up, the same areas are activated in the listener’s brain as well. Talk about getting on the same wavelength — it is literally true. And it happens through storytelling.

What all this research tells us is that, when we listen to a story, we tend to put ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes and, at least as far as our brain is concerned, we experience what’s happening in the story.

As a result, emotions are aroused, thoughts are planted in our mind which we think are our own. And we act accordingly.

In other words, storytelling works in PR and marketing, because it allows us to connect with our audiences and take them on a journey — a journey that stimulates the feelings, ideas, and attitudes consistent with our marketing goals.

Let me tell you a story:

“My husband and I once had a business selling men’s socks. ‘How the heck do you sell men’s socks?’ we wondered. Somehow we had to prove that our socks weren’t plain old socks. They’re the socks worn by men who are sexy and adventurous. So we showed our socks being worn in racy, exciting, and fun situations. Nine months later, we sold our sock business for multiple six figures.”

I tell this story all the time to show we used storytelling to position our products for a specific market, differentiate our business from competitors, and attract buyers. Isn’t the story much more memorable and compelling than the factual sentence preceding this one?

What makes a story great?

Now you know that stories are great communication tools. But of course, some stories are better than others. Why do some stories succeed while others are quickly forgotten?

Good brand storytelling has the same elements as classic storytelling:

A plot

The plot is a story’s structure, and the classic story arc goes like this:

There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning introduces us to a conflict or crisis. The middle shows efforts to solve the crisis. The tension builds as it may seem there is no resolution, until we reach a climax or the highest point of the story. Everything hangs on a balance and must tip one way or the other. The story ends with either success or disappointment.

A hero(ine)

Every story happens to somebody. Most of the time, our best-loved stories are about humans, or at least, characters with human characteristics (watch the most popular Disney and Pixar films and you’ll know what I mean). The hero(ine) is usually a likeable creature, but if not, they are not completely devoid of redeeming qualities. They must have something that makes the audience relate with them somehow.

A satisfying ending

Whether happy or tragic, a story’s ending must satisfy the audience. Most people want a story to end with a “happy ever after.” But some stories must end in disaster. Cautionary tales, for example, need to have unhappy endings to be effective.

Seth Godin has a long list of qualities of a great story. Some of them are:

  • Great stories resonate with your audience. It’s relevant and relatable.
  • Great stories are true. They have authenticity and consistency.
  • Great stories are trustworthy. Being true makes a great story trustworthy. The source of the story can make or break its credibility as well.
  • Great stories make a promise. A great story makes us expect to be entertained, inspired, distracted, educated, heartbroken — something, anything.
  • Great stories are sensuous. That is, they appeal to the senses. Read a great novel and you’ll know what I mean. You can smell and taste the salt in the air. You can almost touch the roughness of the rope, feel the sting of rocks cutting into your feet….

How can I become a great brand storyteller?

Now you know why stories work and what makes them great. How do you apply all this in your PR work?

Here are some ideas:

Know your audience.

Always be listening and watching. Which stories resonate with your target audience? Look at the pop culture they consume. What kinds of content does your market respond to? What needs, problems, and issues cause the most tension or conflict in their lives?

Mine for stories.

Keep digging and looking for material in your (or your client’s) business that could make great stories. Begin with yourself or the ones who started the business. How did they come up with that business? What challenges did they have to overcome to get their product out to market?

Employees can also be a goldmine for brand stories. Do you have an engineer training for a marathon? Is your designer a Comic Con enthusiast? Does your staff writer write children’s stories in her spare time? These human interest stories and anecdotes could help you connect with your audience in ways a press release never would.

Don’t forget about your customers’ stories. Each happy customer gives you the opportunity to tell your company’s success story in a different way. Present testimonials in different ways. For weight loss products, for example, “before” and “after” photos are the quickest stories you can tell. But why not think outside the box and transform them into advertorials, Vine videos, news features, and other types of stories?

Also keep in mind that you may not always be able to include your entire storyline (see storytelling arc above) in one PR or marketing material. You may have to tell your story over several “installments.”

Identify your heroes and heroines.

Don’t make your business the hero of your brand storytelling. People don’t connect with companies; they connect with other people. As mentioned above, you can find hero(in)es in the people behind your business, as well as the people who buy your products. But who else? How about investors? Vendors? Suppliers? Benefactors?

Begin by identifying protagonists who are similar to your target market. However, some “characters” may seem to be different from your market yet resonate with them nevertheless. Keep looking!

Tell your story richly

We are now spoiled for the variety of media we can use to tell and share our stories. We’ve been talking about multi-media: going from print to images, sounds, and video.

But now marketers are starting to talk about “transmedia” or telling a story across different media formats. Each format builds on each other and together tell a richer, more compelling story. I hope to explore this more in the future and will definitely share my experiences — stories — with you here on the blog.

To be an effective PR professional and marketer, you must be a good brand storyteller.

How do you apply storytelling techniques in your PR and marketing? What elements have I missed in this post? Please share your experience and ideas in the comments below.